28 MARCH 1981, Page 20

Hart to heart

Roy Fuller

The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters: Volume III 1958 Edited and introduced by Rupert Hart-Davis (John Murray pp. 185, £12.50) There were two Proustian or Powellian 'plants' by Rupert Hart-Davis in the first volume of these letters. The first — that his 'father' was not his real father — he explained in 1979 in a fine memoir of his mother, The Arms of Time. The second — that he would like to chuck publishing and live in Yorkshire with someone whose name he would one day reveal —is amplified in the present book. It would be a shame to give away this leg of the puzzle in a review Spectator 28 March 1981 (though it can be guessed by a glance at Sir Rupert's entry in Who's Who) and I shall refrain from doing so. Not that these volumes need, in my view, any mystery r° add to their power to grip. They at readable and re-readable: gossip, and liter' ary anecdote and quotations, slightly cosy, slightly old-fashioned, but strung ori 3 thread of real, felt life. Lyttelton was 73 and Sir Rupert 50 wile this volume starts: the former a retired Eta schoolmaster, rather stuck away in Suffolk; the latter a preposterously busy publisher., committee-man, editor and author. Their weekly correspondence arose out of , a promise made by Sir Rupert over dinner le 1955, and it was amazingly sustained. In Volume II one sometimes felt Lyttelton was struggling a bit, but here he is complereV back to form. His taking up of his vis-a-vis s points (as he says, so vital in correspondence) is exceedingly resourceful: one nee,t1 only instance his reaction to Sir Rupertis revelation of the companion of his longeo". for Yorkshire idyll — a reaction in literarY terms (the Old Testament, Chaucer and Thomas Hardy, no less), but, after all, wil3t other adequate terms were there? It is tempting to use one's space simplY.t° retail some passages that make one grin, even laugh aloud (like Lyttelton, a propos of the unreadiness of some clever minds, telling how W.E.H. Lecky, the Victorian historian, playing a paper-game involving the listing of famous people with names, beginning with H, produced Hengist ano Horsa and no more). But the book, for all its fizz, has some extended themes. The Eton connection is strong, also evident in sh; the dining-club, the 'Literary Society', that served the useful function of regularlY bringing the two friends together, 'Of outsider may feel envious of the sell" possession and savoir faire bestowed by the school (even, it seems, on the dim, the taciturn and the nervous) yet its influence is behind much of the best in this book — hoar Sir Rupert's one sentence dismissal of Suez to Lyttelton's fear of a new Dark AV. The feelings expressed over these ters, though conservative, are not blimr mat' F.R. Leavis is still an amusingly-depicte0A bogeyman (Lyttelton's punishment wol-tiu be to put him on a desert island with Ed!th Summerskill, Barbara Castle and Beato.ce Webb), but T.S. Eliot is characterised with clear-eyed sympathy. And it is not real)' trivialising the issue of threatened barba, ism to see it involving the London Library, h liability for rates, a question over vvhich this volume Sir Rupert spends much tonc, and energy. Even Lyttelton's (superficiallY pettifogging) membership of school goy' erning bodies and marking of GCE papers seem to weigh in the scales: As I told one of my girls' schools last weel(' schools are once again, as in the middle-age,: monasteries were, the last desperate strongholu; of 'sweetness and light', and warned them till when they go out into the world, they MU fin most of the standards they have learnt derided or ignored or even actively attacked. Alas, how disastrously worse things at' 20-odd years on. This is demonstrated by the assumptions the pair make about literature and obscenity, then a parliamentary issue. Another descent down the scale sibce then is especially striking to a writer: Sir . Rupert was, of course, exceptionally enlightened, intelligent and conscientious as a publisher, but one can't help wondering how even these qualities (if they were to unite again in one man) would fare today. It could be argued that the imprint of HartDavis was free enterprise publishing at its near best: the firm flinched neither at the big book (the present volume has a good deal about Sir Rupert's edition of the Oscar Wilde letters) nor the difficult book (even a collection of verse), and he had a sharp eye for the best-seller. Sir Rupert had to be personally pleased, but was that worse for literature than trying to captivate a committee of the Arts Council?

Recently, a series of extracts from the letters has been read on Radio 3, so I suppose there is less need than there was to spread the gospel. The previous two volumes are still in print, and I would recommend newcomers to take the King of Hearts' advice and begin at the beginning.